The four stages of competence

Meander
2 min readDec 21, 2022

The ‘conscious competence’ learning model is all about the psychological states we go through when learning a new skill, ranging from incompetence through to competence.

In this article, we’ll break down each of these stages and how you can make the journey right the way through to the holy grail: conscious competence. Also known as “killing it in my sleep”…

Stage one: Unconscious incompetence

Or, “I don’t know that I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Unconscious incompetence refers to an individual who does not understand or know how to do something but, crucially, also does not necessarily recognize that their competence is lacking in this area. In addition, such an individual might deny the usefulness of the skill in order to downplay their own inabilities.

At this stage, it’s important for the individual to become aware of their deficit in this area as well as the intrinsic value the new skill brings about before they can move on to the next stage. How long an individual stays at the unconscious incompetence level depends heavily on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Stage two: Conscious incompetence

Or, “Hmm, I don’t have this skill… I should probably learn it.”

By stage two, the individual has not only recognized their deficit in relation to a particular skill, they have also recognized the intrinsic value of learning it and addressing the deficit. A key element of stage two is the acceptance of mistake making.

Stage three: Conscious competence

Or, “I think I can do this, let’s see… yep. Nailed it.’

Once an individual has reached stage three, they have onboarded elements of the new skill and are able to demonstrate it. However, performing the skill is not automatic and the individual must think carefully when executing it; often breaking down the process into small, more manageable steps to reach their goal.

Stage four: Unconscious competence

Or, “Autopilot, baby!”

Stage four is the final stage of competence. The individual has performed the task or skill so many times that they can execute it automatically and with ease, even teaching it to others in some cases. Such is the individual’s level of expertise by the “unconscious competence” stage that they can perform this skill while busy with another task.

From the team leader’s perspective, the four levels of competence learning model is a useful tool for assessing the skills levels of the team and, in turn, providing personalized support, training, and education that meet the individual learning needs of team members, enabling them to learn new skills, and build on and maintain the skills they already have.

The four stages of competence model is also an important reminder to people managers that we can’t treat all team members (or mentees) in the same way; each individual is at a different stage in their learning and will therefore require varied levels of support and attention. As mentors, our goal is to help them identify which stage they are at and the cues for them to look out for that it’s time to progress to the next level.

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Meander

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